Lord Tharius, fiery of head, sunken of eyeball and a world-renowned justice fan, drops down from his personal hoverdisk into a tightly-wound gaggle of slathering thugs. As they turn towards him in their usual ganglandish fury, wacky lightning begins to emanate from his leather-clad body, giving the ne’er-do-wells a well-deserved scorching. Raising his hands to the sky, Tharius telekineticates several large and pointy bits of debris from the ground, which then explode outwards into the waiting mushes of his foes, sending them flying. Shakily, one remaining villain staggers back to his feet, only to be felled for good by a lightsabre to the face.
I’m a bloody hero. Nelson Mandela, Princess Di, Plaxico Burress, and now me.
Champions Online is one of those games where it’s pretty much impossible not to feel awesome. Stunning action set-pieces are so common that it has a habit of making other games – as well as most real life activities, seem positively mundane. I mean sure, that bacon sarnie was a thrill ride and a half, make no mistake about it. But I can’t help feel disappointed that it didn’t shoot fireballs from between the slices and swing through the city on a high-tensile zip line, foiling robberies and sexy murders. Some sandwiches just can’t meet expectations.
Which is pretty good going for Champions’ sake. It is, after all, a superhero MMO, and managing to screw up the innate sense of kickassness that makes superheroes so super. Developed by Cryptic, it takes a lot of cues from their previous success, City of Heroes. The principle is essentially the same: you are a superhero in a world populated pretty much entirely by other superheroes. You spend your days righting wrongs, championing the weak and generally doing things that will look good on any morality CV. And to accomplish this, why, you apply the finest ultraviolence sauce! It tastes so good on crime.
Like City of Heroes the first few hours are generally spent in Champions’ incredible character creator. The sheer breadth of options in designing your unique hero costume is astounding, and it is not uncommon to spend hours and hours designing new characters you will never have the time to play. Veterans of CoH may find the new costume creator slightly tricky to adjust to at first (there are some occasionally bizarre restrictions, notably the inability to wear capes on anything other than a sleek, figure-hugging outfit) but before long it becomes second nature. Yes, you too can create the robot-ninja-pope you’ve always dreamed of.
As well as designing the look of your hero, there’s a pleasing freedom to choosing the powers they use to fight crime. No set classes or roles, but a variety of power sets which can adapt to multiple roles depending on your preference. Stick to a single power set and you’ll gain access to the higher tiers of powers quicker, but the real fun comes from mixing and matching powers from different sets, to create a properly unique and memorable character (Ninja-RoboPope issue #1 in stores next January).
Out in the field, combat is frequently a joy, yards ahead of the dreary standard usually encountered in MMO-land – so long as you take a moment to have a bit of a fiddle with the controls. Everything feels immediate and responsive, and powers give suitably impressive biffage to the many evil-doers Champions lays in your path. All characters are able to block incoming attacks to reduce damage, and this also helps to build up energy to fuel their own powers. Victory often depends on timing your blocks for your opponent’s super-attacks (charmingly preceded by a “BLAM!” effect bubble) and then counterattacking in the gap between their next strike.
Champions, then, is a delicious picnic for the violence-lobes. But like all picnics, it must inevitably have to contend with the problems of wasps and impudent pigeon-bums. Cheeky chief among these is the quest/mission system which owes its existence to MMO-godfather World of Warcraft. Commonly you find yourself picking up a brace of missions all at once, so there’s little compulsion to actually sit down and read what it is you’re doing and why. The tasks themselves are tedious and trivial - collect 15 yeti tears, destroy 5 boxes of yeti tears, douse 7 robots in yeti tears, then return to be rewarded by a +2 CON yeti tear and a snack-pack of XP. These days WoW itself is moving away from this sort of thing towards more involving, compelling and complex quests, so seeing Cryptic fully embracing Blizzard’s foulest bathroom waste as if it was made of diamonds and happiness is somewhat worrying, if only from a hygiene point of view.
Not only that, but most world content is geared towards solo play. You may notice that most of the screenshots here are only showing singular characters, and that’s because I found myself playing, for the most part, entirely alone. There’s barely any encouragement to team up with others, especially not strangers, and the few times where I found myself contracting fellow super-chaps our working relationship rarely lasted beyond the immediate problems we solved. This is a shame, because even without rigidly-defined classes, there is copious synergy to be had between the different roles players take, and on the rare occasions you get to enjoy this, it’s as glorious as repeatedly smacking a werebear in the face with a police car. Oh, did I mention? You can repeatedly smack a werebear in the face with a police car.
But the above issues become mere quibbles next to Champions’ great big angry hornet of a problem – there simply isn’t nearly enough content, not enough by half. To make another crass comparison to WoW, the handful of zones Champions offers would be swallowed up by Azeroth many times over, and when you start to play alts (which the mighty character creator strongly encourages) you’ll quickly find yourself trudging through familiar quests. The first 30 levels are taken up almost entirely by three zones – Desert, Snowy and City, and these are worryingly easy to strip bare of content.
A problem not helped by the great disappointment that is the Nemesis system. This was much anticipated by players, but apparently not by the developers, since the whole mechanic feels half-baked and unloved. On reaching the absurdly high level of 25 you get the chance to make your own supervillainous nemesis. The idea is that they fill in gaps with procedurally-generated missions, something unique and personal to your character. Brilliant! Except it’s much too little, too late.
On top of that, the degree of customisation available drops dramatically for Nemeses; minions are chosen from a list of dreary preset models, and the only personalities you have available for your nemesis are ‘maniac’, ‘mastermind’ and ‘savage’. Wow. Thousands of years of villains in literature boiled down to three hateful little tropes. With no way to preview how this will actually make your nemesis behave, you inevitably end up with a character you despise, making future encounters a chore rather than a pleasure.
It is of course, the earliest of days. MMOs are wont to change many times over throughout their lifespans, so none of these problems are necessarily permanent, and may not affect you at all if you start playing in, say, a year. But there’s such a lot to do. The amount of mission content needs to be doubled in a very short space of time, otherwise we can expect to see the population of the single enormo-server drop like a stone once everyone tires of beating up the same three crooks over and over.
It would be a shame if Champions failed, because it does so much so well, better than most of its contemporaries. It deserves to be high on your gaming priorities list, but it would be inadvisable to go for one of those pricey lifetime memberships. Loyalty and trust are for pussies.
Oh, and heroes too, I guess. Hmm. Now I don’t know what to believe.